Bernie Sanders won’t be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate this year, but his impact on Democratic politics is hard to miss. The Washington Post reported yesterday on the party’s new national platform.
If party platforms matter – and the jury is out on that – what happened this weekend in a sweltering Hilton conference room was remarkable. The Democratic Party shifted further to the left in one election than perhaps since 1972, embracing once-unthinkable stances on carbon pricing, police reform, abortion rights, the minimum wage and the war on drugs. It did so with very little ideological resistance and a lot of comity between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.“We have produced by far the most progressive platform that this party has seen in multiple generations,” said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D), co-chairman of the platform committee.
It’s worth pausing to appreciate the irony: it wasn’t long ago that Sanders’ campaign team demanded Malloy’s ouster, considering him too moderate and too supportive of Clinton to oversee the platform process fairly. And yet, there was the governor, announcing the progressives’ victory.
As NBC News reported, the draft platform “still needs to be ratified at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia,” though no major changes are expected.
The larger shifts extend beyond the Democratic platform. About a week ago, Clinton announced new provisions in her higher-education plan, which Sanders hailed as “extraordinarily powerful.” Late last week, the presumptive Democratic nominee also added some new, progressive policies to her health-care plan, which further delighted Sanders.
The traditional electoral model sets expectations every four years: a presidential candidate will play to his or her base during the primaries, and then deliberately shift towards the center for the general election, trying to appeal to a broader, more ideologically diverse audience. And yet, Hillary Clinton effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination in late April, and she hasn’t changed her direction at all. If anything, Clinton has taken additional steps to bolster her progressive bona fides since securing her 2016 position.
Why is that?
Some of this is the result of Sanders’ unique strengths as a national candidate. The Vermont senator’s campaign is unlike anything Democrats have seen in quite a while, and Clinton has no doubt recognized the importance of appealing, as much as possible, to his enthusiastic backers. The more she moves to the “center,” the more she risks alienating these voters on the left.
It’s also true that Clinton’s positions, like the new provisions of the Democratic platform, enjoy fairly broad public popularity. It’s not as if any of these policies require meaningful investment of political capital: most Americans are perfectly comfortable with ideas such as the public option and Medicare buy-in.
But there’s another angle to this that often goes overlooked. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson raised an important point last week: “Trump’s indifference to policy [is] letting Clinton tack left for the general.”
In a typical year, a Democrat would be cautious at this stage about appearing too progressive and risking pushback from Republicans about being “extreme” and/or “out of touch.” But every time Clinton announces her support for new progressive measures, she doesn’t face any GOP resistance at all – because Trump just doesn’t care. By all appearances, the presumptive Republican nominee is simply indifferent to what Clinton’s substantive agenda entails, and his critique of his general-election rival has nothing at all to do with her policies.
In other words, Clinton can effectively act with impunity when putting the finishing touches on her governing vision, confident that no matter what she proposes, her post-policy opponent probably won’t complain or even notice.